How Tina McKinnor and Lola Smallwood-Cuevas are Tag Teaming A Political Agenda for Transformative Change
It was in 1966 that Yvonne Braithwaite Burke made history as the first Black woman elected to serve in the California State Assembly. In the next three decades to follow, just seven—including Maxine Waters, Diane Watson and Barbara Lee would follow. And while it is important to note that these women were not only the first Black women to be elected to the California State Assembly, but also some of the first Black women to hold elected office in the United States, progress was slow.
Yet in recent years, through the efforts of those like Holly Mitchell, Sydney Kamlager-Dove, Shirley Weber and most recently and Tina McKinnor and Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, Black women appear to be making up for lost time with their bold political agendas and no-nonsense style in championing important legislative initiatives and advocating for marginalized communities.
Fueling their giant leap of political activism forward was the onset of groups like the Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA), Los Angeles African American Women’s Public Policy Institute (LAAWPPI) and the California Black Women’s Collective (CBWC), which helped them to parlay their power as one of the most active voting blocs in the state.
According to a UCLA survey, 70% of Black women voted in the 2020 election, compared to 65% of all women and 57% of all eligible voters. Black women have also been instrumental in turning California into a reliably Democratic state and as such, have become an increasingly important target for political campaigns looking to win elections in California.
It was the pressure put on Governor Gavin Newsom by those groups to appoint a Black woman to replace then Senator Kamala Harris that led to the historical appointment of Shirley Weber as the state’s first Black Secretary of State and the subsequent election of Malia Cohen as the state’s first Black controller last year.
But nowhere is the strength of the Black political machine in the state legislature more evident than in Tina McKinnor and Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, whose alliance in moving forward critical issues has created the kind of political headway that is making them a duo threat in the California legislature on a wide range of issues ranging from criminal justice, employment discrimination and housing affordability to maternal health.
Through their combined efforts, they were able to secure $170 million for the Inglewood Transit Corridor and are tracking California’s film tax credit program tax credits program to ensure that diversity remains key in the pathways created.
“Senator Smallwood Cuevas and Assemblymember McKinnor are a testament to what it means to be collective,” said Kellie Todd Griffin, President & CEO of the CA Black Women’s Collective Empowerment Institute, whose aim is to open paths for Black women by providing political education, training, and support.
“Their collaboration demonstrates the power we have when we recognize that we are better together as we uplift each other and other Black Women. I am confident that their partnership will drive meaningful change to improve the lives of Black Californians.”
It is a collaboration that has fueled their efforts in both chambers of the statehouse—the 40-member California State Senate and 80-member Assembly— that is making for the passage of meaningful legislation impacting the Golden State’s 38.9 million residents.
“When we’ve had the most impact in our communities, we’ve not done it as individuals. We’ve done it as a collective,” said Smallwood-Cuevas. “And I believe that Tina and I, in this moment, know we are representing that tradition of black women working collectively with other leaders to make a difference. Aligning our strategies, capacity and our resources helps to multiply the impact. We need as many boots on the ground in that struggle as possible. I’m just very grateful to have a dear sister who comes from very similar roots, who has a similar purpose, and is living and leaning into that purpose here in the state capitol.
“I don’t think the titles matter, it really is about do we have the capacity and commitment to do the work that needs to be done. We recognize that the clock is ticking, and we have to take advantage of every moment to ensure we are advancing the justice agenda we have been elected to do.”
McKinnor is just as clearly focused in their synchronized efforts.
“I have been quoted with saying, I am not here for the bulls**t and that is truly what I feel with Lola Cuevas as well. She has strong experience and so do I in different spaces and we use it. For the first time you have women in all these spaces—Mayor Karen Bass, Supervisor Holly Mitchell, Congresswoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove, City Councilmember Heather Hutt—that are reaching across the aisle and it’s not a competition to see who’s more important. I used to feel that,” she pauses for a moment. I don’t know if that was happening, but I kind of felt that, but not now. And because I don’t believe I’m going to run for anything else, I really want to get some legislation passed,” she states emphatically.
“I want to unravel any type of systemic racism, sexism, homophobic policies that are there. I know that it’s hard to do but I’m going to take my 12 years to focus on that and to grow not only a Black Caucus, but a progressive caucus.”
McKinnor, who represents the 61st Assembly district (including Inglewood, Gardena, Hawthorne, Marina del Rey, Venice, Westchester, Westmont, West Athens and parts of Los Angeles) presented her first bill on her first full day as an Assemblymember and has since focused on issues such as housing affordability, improving public social services for needy families, healthcare access, and breaking the cycle of recidivism for formerly incarcerated individuals along with legislation aimed at holding oil companies accountable for high gas prices.
Among McKinnor’s legislation is AB1, which recently passed by the California Assembly, gives legislative staffers the opportunity to unionize. Another bill, AB 1418, would ban cities and counties from requiring landlords to use criminal background checks, make alleged criminal behavior without a felony conviction related to the property a basis to evict a tenant, and bar landlords from evicting an entire household when a household member is convicted of a crime. Assembly Bill 1628, which would mandate the installation of microfiber filters on all new washing machines sold in California by 2029, to reduce the quantity of plastic microfibers that end up in freshwater systems and oceans. AB 937, the family reunification Services Bill, which would extend the time that parents have to go through services to reunify with their children.
Smallwood-Cuevas represents Culver City, Ladera Heights and parts of mid-city and unincorporated L.A. County and is the only Black woman in the California State Senate. A former labor advocate, Smallwood-Cuevas worked in the successful Justice for Janitors campaign of the 1990s, and subsequent founded the Center for Advancement of Racial Equity at Work and co-founded the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, which addressed racial and economic inequity through strategic training initiatives and stronger alliances between labor unions and Black communities and was recognized by President Barack Obama.
As a director of the UCLA Labor Center, Smallwood-Cuevas has an impressive track record that blends big-picture thinking about economic trends with on-the-ground advocacy to improve the lives of working people. A fierce advocate for workers’ rights, she has sponsored legislation aimed at increasing protections for low-wage workers and supported state policies to increase the minimum wage, strengthen anti-discrimination laws and spur construction of more affordable housing.
She has been instrumental in passing legislation designed to address systemic racism and discrimination within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as well as a bill offering whistleblower protection in cases of alleged wage theft or unequal pay.
Other key legislation she is sponsoring includes SB 16, to provide local authority to cities and counties to fight discrimination cases locally, rather than relying on state agencies for enforcement and SB 150, which would require that certain workforce and community benefit requirements be embedded into the contracting process for projects related to the federal Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act. Smallwood-Cuevas is also working to remove the application deadline for Prop 47 so that individuals with qualifying felony convictions can still petition to have their sentences reduced to misdemeanors under Proposition 47, regardless of when the conviction occurred.
The political model they’ve have adopted was set in motion years earlier by former State Senator Holly Mitchell and former Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove whose political tag team efforts led to the passage of meaningful legislation including juvenile and criminal justice reform, healthcare access, the protection of families, and the Crown Act which was introduced by Mitchell and prohibited discrimination against individuals based on their natural hair styles. It is now law in 21 states across the nation.
Recalls Kamlager Dove, “When I worked for Supervisor Mitchell as her District Director, we talked often about creating a space where Black women elected officials could bond, work and program together. Each person brings different gifts, attributes and vision and that collective energy benefits constituents. As I became an elected official, we practiced what we preached.
“I see that in the sisterhood with Senator Lola Smallwood Cuevas and Assemblymember Tina McKinnor,” she continued. “They are working together, supporting one another and ensuring that each voice is heard in their respective spaces. I do believe this is unique to Black women and I am grateful the torch is being carried on by these two brave women.”
How McKinnor and Smallwood-Cuevas operate and show up is deeply embedded in their own lived experiences.
“I was raised by a very strong black single mom, who came from a very long line of matriarchs, who made ways out of no way,” Smallwood-Cuevas reflected. “That means you look at every human being as a potential resource to help you get to where you need to get to and I think it is a very particular skill set.”
“Black women,” she continues, “have for generations been responsible for the care of our communities and families and connecting the economic and the political to the care and the consideration of the people we love. We use love as a weapon, and it is something that is that is actionable—something that can create and drive outcomes.”
Bringing people together is something McKinnor says she’s been able to do since she was in kindergarten.
“Kids would be fighting in kindergarten into a fight and I’m like, no, no, no,” says McKinnor, of those peace keeping efforts that sowed the early seeds of unity and collaboration. “Today” she says, “the coordination is so powerful between Lola and I that we lift each other up, which gives us the strength to go inside of our separate houses and really fight the battles and we have a growing sisterhood to stand on their shoulders which helps us to be a little bit more aggressive.
“When we get stuck on something we call Holly or Sydney and they are there to walk us through it.”
Adds Smallwood-Cuevas, “We have this alignment of strong progressive black women at every single level of office who have actual personal relationships with each other, building stronger communities, running for office and celebrating each other and really working together to support our campaigns to take our work to the ultimate public service level.”
It is a sisterhood they are working just as hard to expand through efforts like the “Run Sister Run” fundraisers and candidate meet and greets as reported by Regina Brown-Wilson, president of the California Black Media.
“People are not only watching these two legislators work seamlessly together, but just as importantly I was in attendance last month for a meet and greet of Black women candidates that they were introducing to movers and shakers in Sacramento,” Wilson said. “They are serious about working to elevate and increase representation for Black women in both houses of the state legislature.”
To that end, Smallwood-Cuevas is quick to point out that she is just the sixth black woman elected to the California State Senate.
“Tina is 20 and I’m the 21st elected in the state legislature and this is out of 250 years of statehood,” Smallwood-Cuevas stressed. “So, to now have nine black women currently running for state legislative office is historic.”
“We looked around and we thought, who’s going to support these women that are running,” McKinnor said. “And we decided to get together and use our names to introduce these women to this community.
“What’s remarkable about that is that some of these women are endorsed by the incumbents that are non-black”.
In fact, leadership for McKinnor and Smallwood-Cuevas goes far beyond the stature that comes with winning elections.
“We all stand behind these women to support them in their races so that we don’t have more of the same, which is leaders who forget the most vulnerable in our communities. Leaders who come to the state capitol and forget that they have folks they represent back home who need them to stand up and show courage and to include them in policies,” Smallwood-Cuevas said. “Black women still earn under 50 cents on the dollar of what a white man earns, so we have a long way to go to move a Black woman’s agenda here at the State Capitol, but every single day, that is how I am legislating. That is how my sister in the assembly, Tina McKinnor, is legislating and making sure that we’re centering our community—and particularly those who are most disproportionately impacted by so many policies—and that the Black woman is at the intersection of all the barriers we need to overcome in this state.”